As the reading world only just recently learned to its shock and sadness, Philip Kerr's 13th novel starring his glum everyman hero Bernie Gunther will be one of his last: The author died in late March (leaving one novel scheduled for posthumous publication later this year or next). [Editor's note: This review originally mistook the date of publication of the final Bernie Gunther novel.] Kerr left behind a wide shelf of work, including half a dozen children's books, but it's a safe bet that his literary immortality rests squarely on the slumped shoulders of his inimitable signature character. For novel after novel, Bernie Gunther did his best to thread the hazardous path between power and principle as a homicide detective working in Germany under the Nazis.
The books were uniformly superb, and they tended to reflect their hangdog protagonist: they were tough, cynical, very quotable, and ultimately, even quixotically, idealistic. Bernie Gunther tried his best to live a full life even in his impossible position; the books chart his friendships and his love life and meals, his half-hearted and doomed attempts to scrape together a normal life in a Berlin turned into a nightmare city. Bernie often found himself dealing with the highest echelons of the Nazi state, and he was often caught between the machinations of the Reich and urgings of his own sense of right and wrong.
In the latest novel, Greeks Bearing Gifts, that conflict is ostensibly over. The year is 1956, and the setting is Munich, where Bernie Gunther, now going under the name “Christoph Ganz,” works as a mortuary attendant at a hospital, finding something vaguely symmetrical about cleaning dead German bodies all shift long and daydreaming about being anywhere else (“I sincerely hope,” he thinks, “that one night I will go for a drink and wake up as an amnesiac on a steamer that's headed for nowhere I've ever heard of”).
As the novel opens, in other words, he's about as content as Bernie Gunther can ever be. “I get paid sufficient to drive a car, eat sausage, and drink enough beer to be drunk once a week, not necessarily in that order,” he reflects. “In Germany we call that making a living.”
He's dragooned away from this life into a case investigating an insurance claim by a former Wehrmacht soldier who served in Greece during the war and may have been trafficking loot stolen from Jews being deported to Auschwitz. Bernie suddenly finds himself on track for an awkward encounter with his past.
And in true Bernie Gunther form, it ends up being even more awkward than he expected: before he can talk with the ex-soldier, the ex-soldier is murdered in an extravagantly gaudy way. And the murder method is familiar to a new character, Lieutenant Leventis, who's convinced he investigated this same killer during the war. Leventis had suspicions back then about the killer's identity, and he convinces Bernie that this same killer is at work in 1956 Athens.
Leventis is motivated to convince Bernie because Bernie is still Bernie: underneath his pseudonym and his postwar guardedness, he's still a preternaturally sharp detective, though he himself downplays it: “I guess it's true what they say: Detectives are simply people who persist in asking obvious or even stupid questions.” Bernie Gunther doesn't ask stupid or obvious questions, and soon he and Leventis are deeply embroiled in an adventure that deepens with every chapter.
“Frankly, I did a few things during the war of which I'm less than proud,” our glum hero observes at one point. “That's not unusual. That's what war's about.” Readers of the Bernie Gunther novels over the years will remember some of the moral grey areas Philip Kerr has described in such absorbing detail, although they won't be as hard on the hero as he is on himself. “Our lives are shaped by the choices we make, of course,” that hero thinks in this latest novel, “and more noticeably by the choices that were wrong.”
"Greeks Bearing Gifts" ends in familiar territory: Bernie Gunther, having haphazardly survived yet another deadly adventure, stands poised on the brink of a future that may be very different from the one he's been imagining for the length of the book.
The novel itself is every bit as powerful and atmospheric and addictively page-turning as all the ones that came before it, but the final pages are extra bittersweet because there will be no more. Kerr's estate may authorize future novels, and for years there's been talk of Bernie Gunther appearing on the small or big screen (it's a role Christoph Waltz was born to play). But the master's hand is now still; mystery lovers have this one last book to savor.